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With the conversation surrounding mental health, it can be easy to get wrapped up in the push for positivity. People are devoted to self-care and happiness like never before, and that can be an amazing step for many people who haven’t stopped to care for their mental health much before.
However, with all this talk around self-care, positivity and mental health, there’s sometimes a dark side of things. These new standards often create expectations of positivity that everyone has to grapple with — particularly those who struggle with mental illness. Even for those who are fairly neurotypical, these expectations can hit home for one very real reason: everybody has feelings. The good, the bad, the totally joyful and the dreadfully ugly. They’re all inside of everybody.
The term “toxic positivity” refers to positivity that’s unrealistic, insincere and leaves no room for genuine emotions. While positivity is supposed to be accepting and make people feel good, this kind of positivity shames those who feel bad and often comes off as insensitive. Think about those Instagram pages that tell you that there are no excuses for bad days or friends who won’t support you during tough times because they don’t want to be around negativity. That’s not positivity, that’s elitism. And it doesn’t help anyone.
“Positive vibes only” seems harmless enough until you see it in practice. Any space that doesn’t allow real human emotion isn’t a space that allows honesty. Encouraging positivity is wonderful, but no amount of positivity will be able to genuinely rid you of all the negative emotions that are a part of the human experience.
No person can be positive all the time. And that kind of expectation makes people feel bad for something that’s actually quite normal. While it’s important not to drown in the negative, positivity isn’t possible all the time.
It can be really damaging to tell someone that they’re the problem for feeling sad or angry or hurt in the face or trauma or tragedy. Bad things unfortunately happen, and feeling upset is natural. We may not always like it, but hurting is a part of life, and when you realize that, you can process those emotions and understand them, so eventually you can return to genuine happiness rather than forcing a smile.
When you experience loss, hurt or betrayal, the last thing you need is to feel guilty for your natural emotions. If you didn’t feel anything at all, that would probably be cause for concern, honestly. Your feelings are real, honest and necessary for your process.
The most important thing that happens when you acknowledge your negative emotions is what comes after — processing and healing. While negative emotions aren’t fun, they are very real, which means they must be dealt with. Acknowledging the negative emotions will provide a healthier long term outlook, even though it may be hard in the moment.
The only way forward is through, which is true of many things in life. It can be more difficult to acknowledge the negative emotions — it requires you to admit that your reality isn’t exactly what you want it to be. But you can only explore those feelings, those realities and what they mean for you when you accept them.
No matter how much processing you do, you’ll never be able to completely rid yourself of negative emotions — they’re part of the human experience. But being honest with yourself will help your true positivity feel more genuine and fulfilling.
Not all positivity is toxic, and it’s entirely possible to acknowledge negative emotions in a way that doesn’t tunnel you in feelings of despair. While it’s not always realistic to expect yourself to be diligent about hope, optimism and gratitude, you can be mindful of those things as you process your negative emotions to help get you through.
Rather than telling yourself that you need to have good vibes all the time or falling into a pit of inescapable hopelessness every time you have a bad day, you can practice telling yourself “things are bad right now, but they can and will get better.”
Having hope allows the outlook to remain a bit more optimistic without ignoring the very real feelings and experiences you’re having. It’s all about balance.
Negative emotions are real, and they are a part of life. You can’t expect yourself to have good vibes all the time — in fact, accepting your negative emotions and processing them in a productive way can make your vibes more positive than ever in the long term. When you take care of yourself with honesty and sensitivity, that’s where the real positivity begins.